Book Review: Two Books on Sustainability

Greening Modernism: Preservation, Sustainability, and the Modern Movement by Carl Stein
W. W. Norton, 2010
Hardcover, 296 pages

Towards Zero-Energy Architecture: New Solar Design by Mary Guzowski
Laurence King Publishing, 2010
Hardcover, 208 pages

With the buzzwords "energy" and "sustainability" dominating any discussion on the present and the future, how these rarely defined terms are dealt with in books on architecture is increasingly important. All too often considerations of energy and sustainability in architecture are subject to "greenwashing" or a dose of hyperbole, such that buildings that do little beyond the minimum are embraced as models for our sustainable future. At a time when many believe action is needed more than thought, the opposite may be the case, so that movement forward can be theoretically grounded to best deal with dwindling resources, climate change, and the urban canvas upon which they play out. These books, though widely different from each other, take thorough approaches to their subjects that make them good guides for tackling the problems of today and tomorrow.

Carl Stein of collaborative practice Elemental has created a primer of sorts for thinking about energy and sustainability, more than a manual for designing green buildings. But this is a good thing, for he gives the reader a solid background on how to think about energy relative to buildings, why we should design sustainable buildings, why we should preserve buildings, and how Modernism ties all of this together. The last may be the most perplexing going in to the book -- can't a lot of our present crises be blamed on modern man's myopic exploitation of resources? -- but Stein capably illustrates how modern thinking can help architects, owners, and builders tackle the various challenges to find solutions. Any by expending a good deal of the book on energy, Stein contends that opportunities should be looked at relative to energy in its various guises. Here is where preservation enters the picture, because demolition will always result in more energy being lost (in the value of the existing) and used (in both demolition and new construction). In this regard energy isn't just heating, cooling, and power; it is the potential found in materials shaped in the past or in the future into constructions for human use. Stein ends the book with some Elemental case studies, but the valuable portion of the book precedes seeing how he has implemented his own way of thinking.

There is much to commend on how Stein has structured his ideas into a physical book: it is well structured so subchapters highlight key points; these subchapters are bite-size; generous illustrations and charts accompany the text; his writing style is thorough -- even technical at times -- but never hard-to-follow. Yet I'm baffled why a book on energy and sustainability is so wasteful in how it uses paper. A lot of white space is found in the page layouts of this not-small book (10.1 x 8.7 inches), none more so than the bullet points that begin each subchapter. I can think of numerous ways that these important phrases could have been given the weight they deserve on a smaller page size and over fewer pages. I'm guessing the parties involved wanted the book's design to reflect the importance of the text, highlighting Stein's color photos in the process. Unfortunately this leads to a high price tag and more paper in a book that should find itself on the bookshelves of those concerned with energy, sustainability, and architecture.

Mary Guzowski's collection of new solar design in contemporary architecture, like Stein, takes a broader approach towards the sun than just the heat from the sun creating energy via PV panels on roofs. They see how climate is rooted in solar radiation: wind's movement results from the areas of low and high pressure created by the sun heating the atmosphere; rain and hydrological power come from the evaporation caused by the sun's heat. Guzowski focuses on "a true architecture of the sun and wind [that] is more than the sum of passive strategies, technological systems, and ecological engineering." Ten case studies are collected in five chapters: ecological vision, passive design, an ethic of enough, responsive envelopes, an ecological aesthetic. Half of the buildings are from Europe, and three of those are from Germany, hardly a surprise given the countries well known green building codes. Also not surprising is that many of the projects striving for "zero-energy architecture" are prototypes, experiments in sustainable architecture.

The project selection is varied in terms of context (climate, geography, urban/rural) and design (how they reflect Guzowski's considerations). Consistency comes in the form of analysis. Each case study features the requisite photos, floor plans, and building sections, but they also include wind studies, sunpath studies, climate data, and a design profile, all rendered equally from project to project so their merits can be compared easily. Additionally, descriptive text gives background on each project, highlighting the various solar design strategies. It should be pointed out that Guzowski's chapter introductions are helpful for situating the case studies within the various strands of solar design that she's defined, but they are valuable links to environmental literature. The bibliography features other books that focus on the technical and design side, yet alongside theoretical texts that should be required reading for those seriously considering energy and sustainability.